Just a few miles outside of St. Gabriel, scientists dream of having a classroom in the swamp.
A nonprofit intends to turn the wetlands around Spanish Lake into an educational destination. Students and scientists have thousands of marshy acres to explore, and because the site has been used as an oil field, there are already roads leading into the swamp.
"Plans to incorporate the wetland ecological education center into the public teaching curricula are already in process with the intent of some limited use as soon as practical," in both elementary in secondary education, Iberville parish authorities wrote in a news release.
The Spanish Lake Restoration company owns 4,000 acres around the lake for wetlands mitigation. When a business damages or builds on top of swamps in Louisiana, regulators may require that it invest in a mitigation bank which refurbishes and preserves swamps like those around Spanish Lake.
There are restrictions on such land, but it can still be used for recreation, science and education, explained wetlands scientist Alissa Berthelot. She is the volunteer administrator of the nonprofit Spanish Lake Ecological Education Center, formed by the restoration company to develop programming for students.
Berthelot has a renovated trailer, some picnic tables and a parking lot on La. 74 just east of St. Gabriel that could get the ball rolling, though she still needs additional funds. With about $50,000 Berthelot hopes to be able to cover insurance, hire someone to apply for grant money and keep the lights on so students could visit. She may need to find a few volunteers to lead children into the swamp, though.
"It's kind of in its infant stages," said John Clark, Iberville Parish's environmental and permits manager.
The nonprofit approached Iberville and St. Gabriel officials to let them know about their plan. The local governments haven't allocated any money for the outdoor classroom, but they're certainly talking it up. Authorities are excited by the prospect of an amenity that draws people to the St. Gabriel area and gives their own students a chance to explore the local wetlands, which can easily be incorporated into their curricula.
"It just seems like a perfect deal," Clark said.
Spanish Lake is an ideal location because it's so accessible, Berthelot said. The site, which also crosses into Ascension Parish, is close to Baton Rouge. And miles of existing roads built decades ago to reach oil wells now "can provide a unique opportunity for students to readily access and explore the deep swamp," the parish added in a statement.
Eventually, the government and nonprofit hope operations can expand into more permanent buildings, possibly with lab facilities that could also benefit LSU students performing wetlands research in the area.